Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Pan's Labyrinth

Director: Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Ivana Baquero, Sergi Lopez, Ariadna Gil, Maribel Verdu, Doug Jones
Running Time: 120 min.

Rating: R

**** (out of ****)

With all the hype surrounding it, I was prepared for Pan's Labyrinth to dazzle and amaze me with its visual storytelling and imagination. What I wasn't prepared for, however, was how emotionally involved I would become in the story or how much I would care about what happens to the characters in it. With this film writer and director Guillermo Del Toro does something you haven't seen before, won't likely see again anytime soon and rightfully takes his place at the forefront of an emerging revolution in modern filmmaking. He takes two different genres of film, that couldn't be more diametrically opposed and somehow not only makes them successfully co-exist in the same film, but makes each equally powerful.

He manages to tell a fairy tale in the vain of The Wizard of Oz or Alice In Wonderland against the backdrop of a real world full of unimaginable viciousness and brutality. Despite what print advertisements and commercials would lead you to believe, this is not a kid's film. Any child who views this movie (if they can even make it through) would have nightmares for years. Hell, I'll probably have nightmares for years. The film is rated R and it's a hard R as the film features incredibly graphic violence and scary images. A monster known as "the pale man" whose eyeballs are on his hands is genuinely frightening and unforgettable. So the question now becomes: Who exactly is this movie for? The answer is just about any adult, or at least anyone who believes in the power of imagination and the triumph of the human spirit. It's also a film that features the best child performance of 2006, as well as one of the most sadistic onscreen villains you've seen in a long time.

It's post-Civil War Spain in 1944 and young fairly tale obsessed Ofelia (a fantastic Ivana Baquero) travels with her pregnant mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) to meet her new stepfather, the ruthless Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez), who Carmen was forced to marry after the death of her husband. Vidal is a fascist leader who spends most of his time berating subordinates and torturing and killing anti-fascist rebels.

One night Ofelia discovers an ancient labyrinth made of rock outside their new home and meets a faun named Pan (Doug Jones) who claims she's the long lost Princess Moanna, daughter of the "King of the Underworld." To rightfully claim her title she must complete three tasks to before the next full moon. The question that lingers in our minds throughout the film is whether these fantastic events are actually occurring, or are just the product of a young girl's hyperactive imagination, created to protect herself from the horrors of the real world. And what a horrifying real world it is. Her mother is having a painful and bloody pregnancy that will likely result in the death of either her or the unborn child, if not both. If the Captain has his way it will be her since his mission in life is to see the birth of his firstborn son. Fantasy and reality are combined in the harshest way possible in this film and although there are clues early where the story's headed, it doesn't make it any easier to take emotionally when we get there.

Aside from the incredible set design, cinematography and art direction, del Toro does something else brilliantly that may not be immediately noticeable as far as storytelling. It's a small detail, but it's enough to take the movie over the top to the next level. While the fantasy element plays a major role in the early stages of the film, it takes a bit of a back seat toward the middle section as del Toro chooses to focus instead on the Captain Vidal's viciousness and the battle between his fascists and the rebels. Ofelia has genuine fear she may not ever return to this world and misses it. Instead, she may face a hellish life with this tyrannical Captain. Because del Toro pulls away from fantasy and bombards us with this cruel reality it makes the fantasy world that much more important and we miss it along with Ofelia. We feel her pain and fear and can't wait to see this magical world again.

That's not to say del Toro doesn't keep us busy while we're waiting, as there's an incredibly moving sub-plot involving housekeeper Mercedes (Maribel Verdu) who we discover is far more than just a maid. We fear for her safety as much as Ofelia's. Del Toro even manages to bring great depth to what should be the throwaway role of the family physician. He has a scene late in the film that's unexpected, uplifting and tragic. In many ways that one scene encapsulates the entire film.

You know what's scary? When you're watching a film and you know the villain reminds you of someone but you can't seem to put your finger on it. Then about halfway through you realize that person is Hitler. That's how bad Captain Vidal is. He makes Ralph Fiennes character in Schindler's List look like the Easter Bunny and he's one of the most diabolical villains you'll ever see in a movie. He starts off bad and then scene-by-scene his behavior slowly, but realistically gets worse until he reaches such unbearable levels of cruelty that it becomes almost impossible to watch.

This was one of the few times I remember watching a movie and feeling real anger and hatred toward a character onscreen. This isn't just a stock villain either. The scariest and most frustrating element about the character (and a real credit to del Toro and Lopez) is that he seems like a real human being with feelings and motivations. We see a glimpse of humanity as he prepares to do anything to protect his unborn son, but it just makes you angrier because his loyalty comes from such a wrong place and is so inconsistent with the rest of actions. Even the worst men have a history and a reason (no matter distorted it may be) for what they're doing and that's what makes this monster scarier than any Ofelia encounters in the labyrinth. The Captain and Lopez's brilliant portrayal of him (which should have garnered an Oscar nomination) make the rest of the story mean something. It makes us care what happens to the rebels and care if Ofelia returns to the labyrinth. We're used to the "bad guy getting it in the end" but this time you may not care because there's no punishment available that leaves you satisfied he got what he deserved.

There have been clues in the past that del Toro had a film like this in him. The Devil's Backbone was a film not completely dissimilar to this one structurally or visually. With 2004's Hellboy you could tell he cared and was serious about staying true to the source material, but not so serious that he forgot it was a fun comic book movie. Here, everything comes together in his best film that not only dazzles visually, but manages to tell two emotionally involving stories at once.

There may be those who are put off by the fact that it's a Spanish language film with subtitles, but they shouldn't be. I'm willing to bet you could take those subtitles away and completely understand everything that's happening because so much of the film revolves around the visuals and the performances. Earlier this year one of the biggest shocks at the Academy Awards was when this film lost in the Best Foreign Language Film category. That was shocking, but the real shock came two months earlier when it wasn't included among the Best Picture nominees. Pan's Labyrinth is a magical and original experience that earns its reputation as one of 2006's best films.

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